John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for June, 2012

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Immigration should be a debate about real jobs | John Harris

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Immigration is a divisive issue at whose heart heart lie tensions about security, low wages, and a nasty welfare system

As Ed Miliband prepared to give his big immigration speech last week, a cast of characters were dusting down a time-honoured script. Up in Rochdale, the venerable Gillian Duffy was up early, “to do my hair and put on a bit of makeup”, prior to a long day of TV and radio appearances. The Daily Mail accused the Labour leader of “sick hypocrisy“. The British National party chairman, Nick Griffin, seemed to agree, elegantly tweeting that the speech was “patently insecure bullshit”– as well as illustrating the elevated heights to which social media have taken political debate, when one or two impulsive lefties re-tweeted another of his gobbets, about the Labour leader acting as a “recruiting sergeant” for the BNP.

Miliband’s speech was actually careful, nuanced and intelligent: a shame, perhaps, that the surrounding hoo-hah had to star the political equivalents of Widow Twanky, Buttons and Captain Hook.

Here, then, is the real story. For some months the Labour leader has been saying interesting things about the most fundamental aspects of the economy and society. You may have missed them: they tend to be underplayed in the lines his handlers spin to the media, and in the shadow cabinet few seem minded to speak up in support. But in his picture of immigration turning toxic thanks to unregulated labour markets and New Labour being “dazzled” by globalisation, there were increasingly familiar themes. He objects, he says, to “a labour market that is too often nasty, brutish and short term”. And not just that: Britain, he says, should be a country of “rewarding and high-skill jobs”, where “owners, managers and employees see themselves as being part of one shared project”.

Then again, this is the Labour party we are talking about, and the policies supposed to lead us there are, so far, distinctly puny. Miliband suggested increasing the enforcement of the minimum wage and attempting to push recruitment agencies away from filling their books with foreign clients. For five or six years now there has been a lot of excitement on the left about the living wage, and how it might be gently introduced into the economy via the public sector and new demands included in government contracts – which is great, but not any kind of cure for huge swaths of the job market. Much beyond that, you tend to get a lot of talk about the need for a “cultural shift”, which is often another way of saying “don’t know”.

Yet this, unquestionably, is where attention needs to be focused. On the domestic front, just about everything Miliband talks about – tensions around immigration, the so-called squeezed middle, the grim position of the under-30s – is reducible to the same thing: an economy that is fast eating away at people’s security (witness last week’s Guardian story about the 3.6m households only a breath away from poverty), and the ongoing demise of the Real Job. And note the direction in which the Conservatives – and, let’s face it, too many Liberal Democrats – would like to take things: further and further in the same direction, with no thought for the resulting social damage.

A good example: a small part of the immigration issue was addressed when the last government belatedly decided to embrace the EU’s directive on agency workers, whereby after 12 weeks in the same job such employees would have to be granted the same basic conditions as their more protected colleagues. It came into force last year – but the infamous Beecroft report on employment regulation recommended that the government should completely ignore it, and see if the EU would come after them. This is the stupid course advocated by voices who’d have you believe that Britain can be revived via yet another attack on “red tape”, and that bringing social imperatives to bear on the economy is unthinkable.

For Labour, they should be an easy enough target. Far more difficult is the fact that low-wage, insecure, no-prospects jobs have an increasingly symbiotic relationship with our ever-more nasty welfare system. Jobseeker’s allowance is now thoroughly conditional: to be one of its 1.6 million claimants is to effectively agree to take any “reasonable” job offer under pain of having your benefit taken away; if you’re in work, you know full well that the same punitive machinery acts as a disincentive to do anything about your own predicament. What pressure can be brought to bear on companies that are ecstatically happy to employ people on the most abject terms, when two successive governments have built a system to deliver them as many people as they need?

Sit in on any JobCentre interview or spend time around the government’s work programme, and it’s clear that the part of the modern job market they deal with is often a tangle of fake self-employment, temporary contracts and jobs paid in commission. To go back to Miliband, all that points to work that is indeed “nasty, brutish and short term” – but both main parties seem happy to underwrite it.

The upshot of all this is simple, but so at odds with Westminster groupthink that it feels almost funny. To truly turn the heat up on low-end employers, you would have to do away with the current miserable consensus on welfare, bin a good deal of the ideas about benefits and “conditionality” shared by most politicians, and thereby increase the bargaining power of people at the bottom. It would also be an idea to massively increase the reach and clout of trade unions. And how about an Obama-style amnesty for illegal immigrants, so as to come down hard on a part of the economy that not only represents insecurity and exploitation at its worst, but exerts a real downward pull on wages and conditions elsewhere?

At which point – obviously – you reach the stubborn limits of the debate: from even the most supposedly imaginative Labour people as much as any Tories, such heresies would presumably be greeted with sneering derision. But if things are as grave and urgent as the Miliband speech made out, why not?

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Why I won’t be going to see the Stone Roses, by John Harris

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

Since their magical peak in 1990, the band has delivered only disappointment and disaster. So is their latest reunion a chance for them to finally do it right? Or just another nostalgic cash-in?

The last time The Stone Roses made a live British comeback, it began in the less-than-glamorous surroundings of Bridlington, a drab Yorkshire seaside town that sits between Scarborough and Hull.

It was 28 November 1995, around a year after the release of a disappointing album titled Second Coming. I had been sent to interview them for Q magazine. Behind the scenes, what I most recall is the absence of anything suggestive of success. They were billeted to a shabby seafront hotel; one of my clearest memories is of singer Ian Brown trying to cadge 20p to use an ancient payphone. I saw the whole group together twice: during the 90 minutes when they were onstage, and for a testy 15-minute photoshoot on the beach that took two hours to organise. “It’s not all hunky-dory in Rosesworld,” guitarist John Squire told me. Within a year, they had split up, in a cloud of acrimony and spite.

But now look. Over three nights next weekend, 225,000 people will swarm to Heaton Park in Manchester, to see the original lineup, all of whom are close to their 50th birthdays. The crowds, by contrast, are likely to be of all ages: some set on reliving a brief moment from their youth, others drawn not so much to a rock band, as a myth that has ballooned during the 22 years since the four of them last performed in the UK.

Yet consider a few inescapable facts. The band’s peak came in 1990. They released only two albums: one very good, the other very patchy. And Brown’s vocals remain as erratic as ever: one Observer critic was recently moved to celebrate one song in which he had hit “every single note perfectly” – which made him sound more like a contestant from The X Factor than a man charging people £55 to hear his group.

So far, the reformed Stone Roses have played concerts in Spain, Holland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany – and the shakily shot mobile-phone footage posted on YouTube suggests age and experience have eaten away at the mystique that tends to ebb away as musicians get older. Around a fortnight ago, online films recorded a much-reported episode at Amsterdam’s Heineken Music Hall, when drummer Alan “Reni” Wren failed to return for the encores, and a solitary Brown came back on to the stage. With all the elegance of a grumpy MC at a British Legion club, he said: “The drummer’s gone home. I’m not joking … Get all your aggro out on me, I can take it. What can I say? The drummer’s a cunt.”

It is a reccurring theme in the Stone Roses’ almost 30-year history: discord, anticlimax, and occasional outbreaks of farce. For the most successful phase of their career, their manager – one Gareth Evans – was a former hairdresser who knew almost nothing about the music business, and signed them to one of the most iniquitous recording contracts in history (his legal adviser was a mortgage specialist from the Mancunian suburb of Sale). When they extracted themselves from its demands via the high court and disappeared from view, it was easy to think they had gone to one of those shadowy places into which rock legends occasionally disappear (American rehab facilities, castles in Ireland), but the reality was more prosaic: between 1991 and 1994 they were working on new music in a converted working men’s club in Tintwistle, Derbyshire. Their comeback in the mid-90s was meant to be crowned by a headline appearance at Glastonbury in 1995 – but it was pulled when Squire fell off his bike.

Even the most celebrated episode in their career was plagued by mishap and bad management. On 27 May 1990, they played to 30,000 people at Spike Island, a reclaimed toxic-waste site near Widnes, in Cheshire. I was there: aged 20, and dressed in the obligatory baggy uniform of the time – impossibly wide jeans, an equally voluminous denim shirt, and red Kickers shoes (”You look like a clown,” said my mother). That day, I thought I had experienced the time of my life: the Independent On Sunday called it “the Woodstock of a new generation”, and despite all kinds of privations, my friends and I thought that was roughly what had happened.

In hindsight, it was a fiasco. The queues for the bars were impossibly long. The support acts were largely awful. By the early evening, all I could think of was how much I needed a wee, and how long it would be before the Roses appeared. When they finally emerged, the sound was so blown around by the wind they were sometimes all but inaudible. On the way out, the 30,000 people present were herded across a series of narrow bridges – at one point, as a frightening bottleneck took hold, the section in which I found myself began a spontaneous chant of ”Hillsborough! Hillsborough!”.

Most of this has been lost to history. A film titled Spike Island is now in production, built around a fictional band who make their way to the event without tickets, and have some kind of epiphany. The advance blurb talks about “the gig of the decade”, and its director, Chris Coghill, has promised a “love letter to the Stone Roses and to Manchester in 1990″. Modern Britain is in need of myths and legends – and no matter how badly they messed up last time, the Stone Roses can help.

And here, I think, is why. They made some great music, a lot of it crammed on to their first album, which is not quite the Best Record Ever Made that some overexcited people have claimed, but certainly one of the most perfectly realised British albums of the past 30 years. Moreover, their best songs embody a time when musical and political orthodoxies were changing at speed, and a lot of people felt suddenly liberated.

The Berlin Wall was about to come down, Mrs Thatcher would soon be gone, and the spread of ecstasy gave pop music a new mood of stampeding optimism. “Kiss me where the sun don’t shine/The past was yours, but the future’s mine” went She Bangs the Drums – which may have been standard-issue braggadocio, but sounded like a group in tune with how fast things seemed to be changing. Since getting back together, Squire and Brown have again been writing songs, and the band have signed two big record deals: the only description of new material that has done the rounds is of “psychedelic pop songs”, which does not sound too different from their speciality last time. The difference will be not just how much they themselves have changed, but the fact that the things that made their music so resonant are part of a distant past.

Not that it counts for much, but that’s one reason I’m not minded to see them play this time round. That, and the fact that I have had a peek behind the curtain. The day of the Bridlington gig, I was finally ushered into a backstage canteen area to interview Brown, bassist Gary “Mani” Mounfield and new drummer Robbie Maddix. Brown was wearing an oversized fleece, tracksuit bottoms and one of those winter hats, complete with ear-flaps, that makes anyone who wears them look completely ridiculous. His skin looked grey; compared to the person who had stared from magazine covers five years before, he seemed to have somehow collapsed in on himself.

And he was in no mood to be interviewed, not least because I had reviewed his band’s second album in the NME and given it a mere six out of ten. For some reason, he was carrying one of those novelty harmonicas set into a big plastic banana. Every time I asked a question, he would blow into his banana and shoot me a look. At one point, he jumped up from his seat and, with no little malice, tried to push me out of the room. I know why I didn’t walk out: not only did I have to deliver a 3,000-word feature, but I was 25, and still in awe of a group who had soundtracked my youth. And this was my reward: truculence and borderline bullying.

Squire, by contrast, was charm personified. He requested a solo interview, and we met the following morning. He was candid about the impasse the band had reached at their peak – when, for keeps, they became not just a band, but the signifier of an entire cultural moment: “I felt like we were flogging something for somebody, but I didn’t know what it was or who they were. A lifestyle, I suppose. An attitude.” With a knowing laugh, he said the precedent-setting court case that extracted them from their first record contract was “probably a greater contribution to popular music than anything we’ve recorded.”

I talked to him again six years later, after he had stepped back from music to concentrate on being a painter and sculptor (Squire designed all the band’s record sleeves; his Pollock-esque abstracts have long since worked as a series of de facto logos). Sitting around the kitchen table of his home-cum-studio on the edge of the Peak District, we discussed Second Coming, the album whose interminable gestation caused irreparable damage to the band, and had done for his friendship with Brown in particular. “Ian smoked too much dope,” he told me. “When he was stoned, he was at best a tuneless knob, and at worst a paranoid mess.”

If that seemed mean-spirited, it was a belated riposte to years of slights from his old colleague, about Squire’s use of cocaine, and how upset Brown had been by his departure. (”He left me to sink or swim, simple as that,” said the singer. “He didn’t give a fuck”). The poisoned divide between them remained for more than a decade, and the idea of any reconciliation – let alone a band reunion – seemed slim. In March 2009, there were rumours of a comeback tour, which led Squire to produce an artwork based around the words: “I have no desire whatsoever to desecrate the grave of seminal Manchester pop group The Stone Roses.” As with the Smiths and the Jam, it looked as if they would leave the snowballing craze for reunions well alone, which seemed all to the good, particularly in the case of a group with such a record of haphazardly damaging their own magic.

But now, after Squire and Brown met at Mounfield’s mother’s funeral and repaired their relationship, they are back: their legend has grown in absentia, but how can they live up to it, not least as men with an average age of 48.75?

Fair play to them, perhaps: in the wake of a career so ruined by accident and ineptitude, during which endless thousands seemed to fall through their fingers, it would be churlish to begrudge them the chance to finally have a go at doing things properly, and make a load of money in the process.

The bigger question is why so many people want to see them, though in the handbills for the other summer events where they’ll be appearing – T in the Park, the V Festivals – there lurk all kinds of answers. Other headliners include Snow Patrol, the Vaccines and the Maccabees, who will turn up, do their thing with tedious proficiency and go blankly on their way. In other words, it falls to four men at the tail-end of their 40s to remind modern audiences of the tightrope walk that once lay between triumph and disaster, and why even in the midst of a talent for self-sabotage, an elusive something can still burn through.

That’s the highfalutin theory, anyway. The more prosaic truth may be that in times as grim as these, thousands of people will happily pretend that the last 20 years have been rolled back, and that if only for a couple of hours, they can be back in 1990 – happily looking to a future which, for the Stone Roses as much as anyone, singularly failed to happen.

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Paul McCartney’s Olympic gig will crown a decade of continued success

Friday, June 15th, 2012

He was a star turn at the jubilee concert and will close the London 2012 opening ceremony – what motivates him?

“When I’m on tour,” said Paul McCartney in 2010, “it’s very visible, and people say, ‘God, you’re so busy.’ I’m actually not. Compared to how the Beatles used to tour, it’s skiving off. It’s like sagging off school.”

John Lennon summed up his band’s most frantic phase as “one more stage, one more limo, one more run for your life” – and though McCartney’s current schedule is nowhere near as draining, his modesty about his workrate seems misplaced. Certainly, as he prepares to celebrate his 70th birthday on 18 June, his place in the culture feels close to a matter of omnipresence – and simple hard graft is at least part of the explanation.

This month, he played the Queen’s diamond jubilee concert. On 27 July, he will be the last act at the opening ceremony of the Olympics. This year has already seen him perform around the world and release an album largely composed of pre-war standards, entitled Kisses on the Bottom.

Since the great burst of 1960s nostalgia that erupted during the mid-90s Britpop era, McCartney has been elevated to a place even higher than the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. With John Lennon and George Harrison resident in the hereafter and Ringo Starr happy to put out dependably unremarkable albums, it is McCartney who almost single-handedly signifies the Beatles, and all the magic we still associate with them.

This autumn will mark the 50th anniversary of their first single, Love Me Do, released in October 1962, and their legend has probably never seemed so unfathomably huge. So, in concert, McCartney’s calling card is a keen sense of what his public wants: Beatles songs, mostly. At the Jubilee show, he bowed to the inevitable and delivered Magical Mystery Tour, All My Loving, Let It Be and Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da (and, just to bring things up to date, Live and Let Die, the Bond theme he released in 1973). “I’m basically talking hits,” he said this year. “Why are hits hits? It’s because we like them. They’re the best ones.”

The musicologist and composer Howard Goodall is working on a series for BBC2 that examines the history of music since ancient times – McCartney will be included. “He had an intuitive melodic gift: in terms of tunes, he’s one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived.” This, Goodall says, set him apart from John Lennon; by way of comparison, he puts McCartney alongside Schubert, Mozart, Verdi and Puccini. “In Puccini’s case, you’re talking about maybe 20 great tunes. In Schubert’s case, maybe 100. But Paul McCartney is up there in the 100+ category.”

Does it matter that Goodall talks about such achievements almost exclusively in the past tense? “The fact of the matter is,” he says, “no one can go on being different and fresh through their whole life. Nobody’s ever done that.”

That may be true, but the very fact that McCartney is making new music proves he still has to attend to a creative itch. Some of this seems driven by an unshakeable insecurity that applies not just to his efforts in the here and now, but his place in history. On occasion, this seems to verge on the neurotic: in 2002, a McCartney live album pointedly reversed the standard Lennon/McCartney songwriting credit, and prompted a threat of legal action from Yoko Ono. All this suggested something very interesting indeed: that as well as still playing Beatles songs, McCartney continued to feel the bite of the intense competition that drove them to their best work.

Beautifully human

The current phase of McCartney’s progress dates back to 2001, when he recorded and released an album titled Driving Rain, his first album of original songs released since his wife Linda died of breast cancer in 1998, which was trailed by a single titled From a Lover to a Friend. A fragile, beautifully human evocation of bereavement and its aftermath, it proved beyond question that McCartney was still capable of at least fleeting brilliance.

The album was produced by the LA-based producer David Kahne, who has also worked with Tony Bennett, James Brown and Stevie Nicks. It was Kahne who put together the four-piece band with whom McCartney still tours. “He met them the day we started [the album sessions],” he tells me. “We started recording 10 minutes later, and we had a song done in about half an hour.”

From the outside, one would imagine that McCartney’s past must hang heavy when he records new music, but Kahne insists not: whereas his live repertoire is dominated by past glories, in the studio he enjoys working from a blank canvas. “He doesn’t reference other parts of his music, which I thought was really cool,” says Kahne. “There’s only now and the future with him. In the studio, he’s in compositional mode, and anyone who’s a real composer knows that even if they’ve written The White Album that next song is … well, who knows?”

Soon after finishing that record, McCartney began touring with his new colleagues after eight years away from the stage, a process Kahne oversaw from the sound desk. “It’s kind of weird when you have to figure out whether to play Got to Get You Into My Life or Hello Goodbye,” he says. “We were working on the rehearsals, and at that point, I was also possibly going to work on the music for a film about Cole Porter. There were going to be 28 songs in that film: Tea for Two, Begin the Beguine, all those. I had a list of those songs on my table, and I came back from rehearsals, and I put the list of Paul’s songs next to them. And I went, ‘Holy shit! There’s more songs on Paul’s list than Cole Porter’s list!’ And he was singing the balls out of them. I mean, did you ever hear Cole Porter sing? He sounds like somebody strangling a frog.”


As he emerged from mourning for Linda and was evidently energised by his new relationship with Heather Mills, McCartney seemed to reinvent himself. In the mid-1990s, he had seemed to be happy to ease into his 50s, allowing his hair to turn grey, his middle to fill out a little, and his musical activities to slow down: between 1993 and 1997, he did not release any new records, opting instead to work on the Beatles’ vast Anthology project. Four years on, he was not just enjoying a revived solo career, but was also newly lithe and toned. In addition, his hair was dyed a slightly strange shade of chestnut brown, and has remained so.

Around 2007-08, as he and Mills went through their spectacularly acrimonious divorce and McCartney took up with Nancy Shevell, all these elements of his public persona became heightened signifiers for his very rarefied lifestyle. Shevell is the vice-president of the family-owned New England Motor Freight Corporation, and the heir to a fortune put at $250m (£161m); before marrying in 2011, they had first met in the Hamptons, and these days, McCartney looks and sounds like one of those primped, privileged people who flit between continents and calmly fight off the ravages of old age. That his net worth is put at a mind-boggling £665m only completes the picture (though as always, it’s worth mentioning that he and Linda sent their children to a comprehensive school).

In 1981, Philip Norman published his Beatles biography, Shout!, by far the best history of the group. It tended to portray McCartney as controlling, egotistical, and superficial: the man who put French lyrics in the Beatles’ Michelle “as a plain act of social climbing”, and was driven to make every Beatles album from Revolver onwards “an album with no one on it but Paul”. Thirty years on, Norman admits that this was all rather harsh: “This was McCartney at the end of the 1970s. He’d been around with Wings, making music that everyone was thought was pretty shitty, doing this Mr Thumbs-up act all the time. It was terribly annoying.”

His view of McCartney began to thaw when he was working on his biography of John Lennon, and McCartney unexpectedly phoned him, soon agreeing to verify a few important details. “I started to get the point of him, and began to realise why John would have wanted this person around,” says Norman.

Among a handful of other points of fact, McCartney confirmed that though Lennon was right-handed and McCartney played guitar the other way round, each could play the other’s guitar. “That explains the entire Lennon-McCartney relationship to me,” says Norman. “They could each become each other.”

Norman’s view of McCartney went the last few inches towards complete transformation when he became friendly with Neil Aspinall, the Beatles’ one-time road manager, and the diligent custodian of their Apple empire – and, therefore, their legacy – up until 2007. When Aspinall finally retired, he says, McCartney gave him a gold watch inscribed with the very Liverpudlian legend “Ta, la”, and when Aspinall was diagnosed with lung cancer (he died in 2008), he paid for his treatment. “That,” says Norman, “was more than enough to change my view.”

One part of his understanding of McCartney, however, remains in place: however misplaced it may seem, he agrees that insecurity is at least part of what motivates him to carry on working.

“But everybody has that. I’ve just finished a book on Mick Jagger, and he has it. That’s what makes people carry on. With McCartney, it is extraordinary: in pop terms, he’s written the works of Shakespeare, but it’s not enough. It’s like George Orwell said: ‘Every life viewed from the inside is a series of defeats.’ Everybody festers.”

Pocket profile

Born 18 June, 1942

Age 69

Career Joined John Lennon’s band the Quarrymen in 1957, then formed the Beatles. Spent most of the 1970s as frontman of Wings, before going solo. Listed in Guinness World Records as the most successful musician and composer in pop history, with sales of 100m singles. Though not one of his most celebrated compositions, Wings’s 1977 single Mull of Kintyre was the first to sell over 2m copies in the UK, and is still the biggest-selling non-charity single ever.

High point The Beatles’ creative peak in the mid-60s has been unrivalled by any band. McCartney’s 1965 composition Yesterday is regularly cited as the most covered song of all time, and he came up with the concept for their groundbreaking 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Low point Feuded bitterly with his former musical soulmate Lennon throughout the 1970s; was jailed in Japan for possession of marijuana; suffered the death of his wife Linda in 1998; and went through a mortifying and acrimonious divorce from Heather Mills in 2008

What he says “It’s hard to follow my own act. But the only answer to that would be to give up after the Beatles. I only had two alternatives. Give up or carry on.”

What they say “Paul McCartney, one of the best songwriters of all time, has only produced manure for the past 25 years” Noel Gallager

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Leveson matters, and not just to the elite it shames | John Harris

Monday, June 11th, 2012

Leveson, a blockbuster of an inquiry, reveals a political class cut off from the public. In its wake must come a new politics

This is what a potentially fatal mixture of delusion and complacency sounds like. Imagine it honked out in an upmarket accent, over drinks: “The thing about all this Leveson stuff is that nobody out there is interested. When you mention Rebekah Brooks, the only thing people know is that she used to be married to that bloke in EastEnders. That’s about it.”

Such were the rather haughty opinions of an unnamed cabinet minister, recounted a few weeks ago by the Observer’s political editor Toby Helm. Of course, relatively few people can probably tell you what Craig Oliver does, or when Fred Michel’s texts reached their peak of absurdity. But that’s not exactly the point: the Leveson inquiry’s abiding story, of a callow Westminster elite hopelessly in thrall to an increasingly disgraced newspaper empire, is inevitably oozing into the ordinary world, and the relevance of the wider story to public opinion will only grow. When some of the government’s one-time friends and former aides start appearing in a real court, just you wait.

In the meantime, the inquiry’s schedule for this week has the look of an extended political blockbuster: George Osborne, Gordon Brown, John Major, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, Alex Salmond and David Cameron, all called to explain their dealings with the press, and the Murdochs in particular. Cameron will appear on Thursday, and has plenty of questions to answer – though anyone interested in a much more formidable politician should also be glued to their TV the day before.

Salmond’s standing in Scotland is built on the idea that he is not just a breed apart from Westminster politicians, but a self-confident grown-up in a world of mere kids – but as with the more pantomimic Donald Trump, the SNP leader’s dealings with the Murdochs suggest he may also have slightly less heroic aspects. I was in Scotland just as the SNP’s supposed omnipotence was called into question by Labour’s surprisingly decent showing in last month’s local elections: the Murdoch effect was undoubtedly in there somewhere.

What that should tell Westminster politicians is simple enough: that Leveson is relevant to the real world – but for now at least, its place in the public mind is less to do with who said what to whom than matters of perception. Certainly, a spectacle mostly glimpsed on evening news bulletins only reaffirms one of our era’s most ingrained beliefs: that the political class is just that – a cloistered, incestuous bunch, whose obligations to courtiers too often outweigh the supposed demands of democracy. In that sense there is a salience to small but very telling human details: Tony Blair’s anointing as a Murdoch godparent, Cameron and his “lol” texts, the fact that, according to Rebekah Brooks, her exit in the midst of those grim revelations about Milly Dowler’s voicemail was met with messages of sympathy from “Number 10, Number 11, the Home Office, the Foreign Office”.

The disgraced way of doing politics into which Leveson is peering is as much about culture as any decisions or policies. Yes, politics is cliqueish by nature, but what does it say about the post-Thatcher era that we have often seemed to be governed and spoken to by a single metropolitan gang, with the Murdochs and their circle at its heart? On this score, I always think of a party thrown less than a year ago by Elisabeth Murdoch and her husband Matthew Freud, mentioned at the inquiry a few weeks back. The setting was their 22-bedroom pile in the Cotswolds: among the attendees were James Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks, Michael Gove, Steve Hilton, Peter Mandelson, James Purnell, Douglas Alexander, David Miliband, Robert Peston, Mark Thompson, and Alan Yentob.

By way of a truly surreal symbol of much the same culture, consider also the events of a single week in August 2008 – when David Cameron met Rupert Murdoch on a yacht moored off the Greek island of Santorini, before the then leader of the opposition took his leave, and the same vessel made its way to Elisabeth Murdoch’s 40th birthday celebrations on and around Corfu. There, events transpired that would lead to a heated controversy: Peter Mandelson famously dined with George Osborne, and also stayed in a nearby yacht owned by the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, as a guest of the Swiss-based financier Nat Rothschild – who soon introduced Deripaska to the Conservatives’ chief executive, Andrew Feldman. Meanwhile, the credit crunch was kicking in, the fall of Lehmans was only a month away, and Mandelson would be snugly back in government by October. Really: is it any wonder politics has fallen so far?

All this plays into the moment Leveson signifies: the lights suddenly being switched on, and politicians having to at least begin to account for themselves. Fortuitously, it arrives after levels of trust have been corroded by factors both specific, and more generalised: Iraq, the expenses crisis, the way that New Labour began offering an alternative to Tory sleaze and ended up mired in its own version; the fact that Cameron and Osborne seem to have managed much the same journey in only two years.

And it runs far wider than cosy relationships with the press, out into a web of special interests, and in turn into massively important questions of policy. Given that we are talking about a culture that ballooned under New Labour, one set of facts springs instantly to mind: that while the last government was increasingly glued to a world of lobbyists and high living, it did not seem even distantly aware of a snowballing housing crisis, the fact that the issue of immigration was being inflamed by so-called flexible labour markets, or any of the other issues that were corroding its support by 2005, and played their part in its awful thumping five years later. How could it, when it was part of such a rarefied culture?

So how to escape? Imagining a politics completely free of networks of power and influence would be fanciful, but to snigger and scoff at any suggestion that things could be better is to lose any real hope of probity – and simple dignity – ever coming back to the heights of public life. Everyone knows what needs to be examined: not just the ties that bind press and politicians, but party funding (note renewed headlines over the weekend about the Peter Cruddas affair), the role of special advisers, and a style of government that has come to favour back-slapping informality over proper protocol. Whether a professionalised political class can even start to grapple with its own failings is a huge question: that it will have to do so while the economy is in such a state doesn’t exactly encourage optimism.

That said, between now and the autumn, demonstrating even the faintest understanding of post-Leveson politics would be easy enough. As a signal of good intent, one or all of the three main parties should cancel their annual conference (the Lib Dems, in fairness, have an internal democracy to see to, though they could at least scale their event down), turn their back on a schmooze-laden ritual that means absolutely nothing to the wider public, and redirect precious energy elsewhere. The bar is closed; the yachts are back in dock. For the first time in far too long, the real world calls.

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Back to the workhouse

Saturday, June 9th, 2012

In all the debate about jubilee stewards sleeping under bridges, one big fact is being overlooked – Britain’s army of unpaid labour is growing bigger each month

If the diamond jubilee celebrations were meant to somehow reflect 21st-century Britain, it was only fitting that two unshakable features of modern life would find their way into all the pomp and silliness. First came yet another example of the screaming hostility that rises up whenever the BBC does anything even slightly untoward, then an outbreak of angst about the growing numbers of people who are expected to work for nothing.

A brief recap, then. On the night of Saturday 2 June, a security firm called Close Protection UK bussed around 80 people from Bristol, Bath and Plymouth to London, where they were to work as stewards in and around the jubilee river pageant. Fifty were classed as apprentices and rewarded to the tune of £2.80 an hour. Another 30 were “customers” of the government’s work programme, given training placements with Close Protection UK and promised temporary paid work at the Olympics – but for their travails at the jubilee celebrations, they were paid nothing. Having arrived in the capital on Sunday morning, all of them were told to sleep under London Bridge from 3am to 5.30am. After long hours working in the cold and wet, they then made their way to a campsite in Essex, where they bedded down in conditions described by some of them as “swampy”.

The Guardian’s Shiv Malik broke the story 24 hours later, and in the following days, everything needed for a national shoutfest fell into place. There was the obligatory phone-in on the Jeremy Vine show, items on Today and Newsnight, and a tour of the studios from an angry John Prescott. Downing Street claimed the incident was a “one-off”. In all the debate, though, one big fact was overlooked: that the 30 stewards on the work programme were one small part of a national army of unpaid labour, which seems to be growing bigger every month.

Much of this can be traced back to innovations by the last government, which decisively embraced what some people call workfare – though the coalition has expanded such practices to mindboggling proportions. Sometimes this is a matter of people being forced to work for nothing under pain of having their benefits stopped. Slightly higher up the employment hierarchy, it might be a matter of a jobcentre or work programme adviser telling them a spell of unpaid work will brighten up their CV, or lead to a proper job with the same employer. Politicians praise all these things as a means of getting people into work and thereby attacking unemployment; what nobody mentions is that expanding unpaid labour ensures there is even less proper work in the economy.

On Friday, I spoke to one of the 30 unpaid people at the heart of the controversy. This young woman had been made redundant early last year. Eventually, she was referred by her jobcentre adviser to Tomorrow’s People, a charity administering the work programme, and persuaded to train for a qualification in security work. As part of her training, she had already worked for nothing, but only once: at a football match, “observing the crowd and making sure there were no issues”, with six other people on the same scheme. When she and others were informed about the jubilee weekend, she said, they were at first told they would be paid around £400, “but at the last minute, they said, ‘You’re not getting anything – it’s work experience’.”

Sleeping under London bridge, she said, had been impossible: “It was too cold, it was raining, and there were way too many people.” She thus started work at 9.30am, having had no sleep for upwards of 20 hours. She put on her work clothes “in public, in the cold”. Breakfast – “piddly”, she said – had not arrived until 9.15am. The first chance she had to use a toilet, she claimed, was at 2pm. She was supposed to stop work 12 hours after she started, “but me and some other people gave up, cos we were that cold and wet, at six o’clock.” She was then told to take the tube to the end of the Central line, whereupon she called her mother and stepfather almost 150 miles away and asked them to come and get her. “I was that distraught. I had five layers on, and I was soaked through. I was having trouble breathing. After standing up for nine hours, I had a back spasm; I could barely walk. I’d just had enough.”

“I’m signing on tomorrow,” she said, “and I’m asking to be withdrawn from Tomorrow’s People. I can’t trust them. I don’t want to be treated like dirt, working long hours for nothing.

“There’s work experience, and there’s slave labour. I wouldn’t mind work experience for free if it was in good conditions and I was treated properly … not being asked to change in public and having no access to a toilet.” (By way of a response, Tomorrow’s People supplied the Guardian with a list of contact numbers for other work programme participants who had been taken to London on an unpaid basis; they proved to be either unavailable, or unwilling to talk).

The companies that either are, or have been, involved in welfare-to-work schemes extend into the distance. As well as charities and social enterprises such as Tomorrow’s People, there are the specialist companies that deliver such projects as the work programme (G4S, Serco, the now-notorious A4e), some of which benefit from work experience by giving unemployed people placements in their own offices. Further along the chain are the high-street businesses that take on unemployed people as temporary unpaid workers.

Government schemes that stipulate unpaid work has to be of “community benefit” also involve an array of organisations specialising in supposed voluntary work, which often use unemployed people to staff their offices and shops; there is a lot of noise on activists’ websites about the British Heart Foundation, which has 700 such outlets. Its policy director Betty McBride told me that: “As things stand, in every one of our shops, we have work programme placements – some mandatory, some voluntary.” The public sector is also involved: last month it emerged that Sandwell and West Birmingham hospitals trust was planning to use unpaid unemployed people on hospital wards, performing such tasks as “general tidying” and “assisting with feeding patients”.

What all this means for wider society and the economy is highlighted by the 20 minutes I spent talking to a 22-year-old work programme “customer” from East Anglia (as with just about everyone I’ve ever contacted about welfare to work, he insisted his identity was kept secret). His last job before nine months of unemployment was with a mobile phone repair company; late last year, he was put on the work programme with the welfare-to-work company Seetec. Seetec recommended that while he continued to claim jobseekers’ allowance of £56.25 a week, he should do a four-week work experience placement at a city-centre branch of Argos, which began last month.

“I said I’d only do work experience if there were vacancies at the end,” he said. “But at every point Seetec were like, ‘They employ people all the time.’ And as soon as I went into Argos, the people there said: ‘There are no jobs at the end of this.’” He said he tried to leave the placement, but was told that if he did, his benefit would be stopped.

In his first week, he worked for 30 hours (”10 hours more than anyone who was getting paid to work there”), before contacting Seetec and discovering he was only meant to put in 16. “I was doing the bit where you get the item from the warehouse and put it on the shelf, for [the customer] to collect it,” he said. When he arrived, he was one of four people on jobseekers’ allowance doing supposed work experience; three weeks later, there were six such people, working a variety of shifts, out of a workforce of between 15 and 20.

One man sent to Argos by Jobcentre Plus, he said, had been working unpaid for 30 hours a week in a six-week placement. “No one who was paid was getting overtime any more,” he said. “Everyone was being cut down to four-hour shifts. A guy who worked there told me that. The staff were very demoralised that we were taking up so much potential shift work.”

Training, he said, was flimsy. Health and safety instruction – “How to walk up a ladder and lift up boxes” – lasted for half an hour, an explanation of the basics of the job and a formal induction took 90 minutes, and that was that. He finished the placement last Saturday, and is now being put on a retail training course: “I said to my adviser, ‘I don’t know what that entails, but I might as well do it, because it’s proper training, not work experience.’”

In response to his story, Seetec said it could not comment on individual cases, but was “investigating the allegation”. An Argos spokesperson said the company “understands there are concerns about our involvement in the government work experience programme”, but its stores “have clear principles for helping young people into the world of work”. She claimed that its policy on placements is to “only use Jobcentre Plus as a partner” and offered to “investigate where another supplier has been used”. The six-week placements organised with jobcentres, she said, are offered “only where there is the prospect of a permanent job” and there is always “a training plan that helps the individual go on to secure a job, either within the business or elsewhere”. Argos, she said, is committed to ensuring that unpaid unemployed people “work alongside, not replace, paid colleagues”.

One particular pressure group has made the running on the issue of unpaid work: Boycott Workfare, one of those nimble, non-hierarchical, online-focused organisations that regularly crash-land in the news. When I spoke to a member of the group called Joanna Long, she said that at any given time hundreds of thousands of people could be working for nothing, undercutting paid workers’ terms and conditions, and providing a vast subsidy for the private sector. She also said the group was looking forward to 26 and 27 June, when two judicial review cases against the Department of Work and Pensions will come to the High Court in London. One is being brought by Cait Reilly, the geology graduate who was forced to give up volunteering in a museum and work unpaid in a Birmingham branch of Poundland.

“We’re talking about tens of millions of pounds being handed to companies in unpaid work,” she said, before suggesting that the issue undermines the fashionable idea that most Britons want to throw people on welfare to the lions. “People know it’s their jobs and overtime that are being attacked. So it’s not good for them, and they know it’s not good for unemployed people either.”

Like some of the companies involved, the government is sensitive about all this. Back in February there was a spectacular burst of protest focused on the government’s key work experience programme for young people, whereby the unemployed under 25 are encouraged to put in up to eight weeks of work experience – and, as things stood then, risked losing benefit if they left any placement once the first week was up. Zeroing in on this element of the scheme, protesters targeted an array of big retail chains – Tesco, chiefly – and after many companies vowed to pull out, the government pledged to make participation voluntary, while also decrying those who took issue with such schemes as “job snobs”. Pressure groups such as Boycott Workfare claim people are still effectively being forced into taking part – and in any case, whether it’s voluntary or compulsory, the practice of employing people for nothing is expanding at speed.

Last month, the government vowed to double the numbers of unemployed people forced to work for their benefit – for four weeks at a time, up to 30 hours a week – under what officialspeak calls mandatory work activity, which could mean an increase to around 80,000 placements a year. The coalition is also aiming to create 250,000 work experience places for young people before 2015. The official blurb says the latter are a matter of “voluntary work experience”, though when George Osborne announced the scheme last year, he said: “Young people who do not engage with this offer will be considered for mandatory work activity, and those who drop out without good reason will lose their benefits.”

Then there is the work programme, launched in June 2011, focused on people unemployed for a year or more, and built around the private companies and charities that are paid according to how many people they get into work. At the last count, around 565,000 people had been referred to the scheme over the six months to January 2012. Unpaid work experience is an inbuilt element of what the work programme offers to its participants. How long placements can last is by no means clear: the government says its so-called “black box” approach means that it is down to the discretion of A4e, Serco et al, and Freedom of Information requests have revealed that at least one work programme provider, the multinational firm Ingeus (owned by the city giant Deloitte), can put “customers” in unpaid work for up to six months.

And so the array of schemes and projects goes on. Some 300,000 people, either suffering from a long-term illness or disabled, are included in what the government calls the work-related activity group, and there have been proposals to introduce many of them to the wonders of mandatory work experience. There is also a pilot scheme called the community action programme (up to 30 hours of unpaid work a week, for as long as six months), and sector-based work academies (combinations of training and unpaid work lasting up to six weeks). All of this points up one of the most sobering things about modern Britain: there may be a paucity of proper work, but there seems to be no shortage of the unpaid variety.

When it comes to young graduates, meanwhile, rules long since imported from the US mean that unpaid work experience is an increasingly obligatory step on the road to professional employment. The thinktank IPPR reckons that at any given time around half of the 250,000 internships in the UK are paid below the minimum wage and 18% – around 45,000 – are wholly unpaid. Note also the government’s plans to double the number of people doing full-time paid work in prison, much of it for private companies. Most working inmates are paid very low wages: news emerged this week of the contract for prison work handed to the food packaging company Calpac, which pays an “office manager” £40 for a 40-hour week, and puts a “manual packing operative” on 55p an hour.

To finish, back to our hardworking and comfortably off monarch. Just as the jubilee celebrations got going, the Queen paid tribute to “the continuity of our national story and the virtues of resilience, ingenuity and tolerance that created it”. She had a point – but there is also a very British tradition of grim exploitation, embodied by such inventions as the workhouse and the sweatshop. And at this rate, it may be about to return, in spades.

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